Large housing schemes should go through DCO regime to help Covid-19 recovery, says report

The determination of all large housing and infrastructure projects should be taken out of the hands of local authorities and be considered by the Planning Inspectorate under the streamlined development consent order (DCO) regime, according to a think tank report on boosting the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Large housing schemes: should be considered under DCO regimes says report. Pic: Arup
Large housing schemes: should be considered under DCO regimes says report. Pic: Arup

The Unlocking Britain report has been written by the Conservative MP for Harpenden Bim Afolami and published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF).

The document was informed, it says, by the SMF’s Unlock Britain Commission, a "group of independent advisors, business leaders and politicians, led by Afolami and convened to stimulate new economic thinking as Britain seeks to recover and prosper in the wake of Covid-19".

According to the reoport, planning was the "most oft-cited problem" for the British economy by commission members.

The report calls for a dramatic extension of the use of development consent orders (DCOs) by removing the stipulation that projects must be of ‘national significance’ to use the major infrastructure planning process. 

The DCO regime should become the "norm rather than the exception" for all infrastructure development of certain types, such as dual carriageways, railways, waste processing projects, and housing developments containing more than 1,000 homes. 

This could be achieved, Afolami writes, by changing the Planning Act 2008 to require all infrastructure developments to use the DCO process unless they had a particular reason not to under "carefully" developed criteria. 

As part of this reform, he recommends removing the need for DCOs to be made in accordance with a National Policy Statement. 

In order to further streamline the planning process, he recommends shortening the time period required for the public examination of DCO applications from the current six to four months because they would be dealing with smaller projects. 

And the times for planning inspectors and secretaries of state to each make their decisions under this process should be cut from three to two months. 

In addition, the ability for the secretary of state to extend the time period they have for final decision–making should be limited to special circumstances, such as national security or a national emergency.

These moves would mean that infrastructure projects, or housing developments of 1,000-plus unit could be delivered with a "high degree of certainty of success", within 12 months of applications being submitted, Afolami argues.

"This will speed up infrastructure development hugely, and will increase certainty for developers, and retain consultation for local residents," he said.

In addition, many councils are "too small and under-resourced" to determine large and complex applications, according to the report. 

"A convoluted, expensive and uncertain planning system is a real hindrance to spreading and growing the economic opportunity that our people really need. Without improving the planning system for infrastructure, it will be difficult to deliver on the 'levelling up' agenda," it adds. 

A separate recommendation calls for the restructuring of local government to reduce costs and improve planning expertise.

The report states: "We should remove a tier of local government across the country, restructure district and county councils into moderately sized unitary councils in the counties, and radically reduce the numbers of councillors in metropolitan areas."

This would mean that "planning departments will have greater expertise, with improved capacity to deal with complex planning issues – which currently often overwhelm small planning departments in small authorities".

Another recommendation is the establishment of development corporations to regenerate high streets by implementing plans drawn up by a so-called "Future Town Centre council", made up of specialist advisers from across the country. 

The council should be used to promote "much more" residential development in town centres, the report says, which will stimulate their rebirth, increase footfall for the retail sector, and provide more affordable homes for young people.

Afolami also backs the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s proposal to hold “street votes” to allow residents to hold ballots on whether to relax planning controls and allow building upwards on their road to a maximum of five storeys. 

Afolami is a member of the SMF cross-party policy advisory board.

The report can be found here.

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